A Guide to Choosing the Right Dog from a Shelter

Erick Pleitez
Erick Pleitez
It can be hard to know exactly what you’re getting when you adopt a shelter dog.

See, being stuck in a shelter is a shitty thing for a dog to go through. They were taken from whatever life they knew and thrown into a scary place, surrounded by strange people and dogs. Understandably, their behavior might be a little off.

After you bring a dog home, it can take several months before you see his true colors. Some shy dogs become outgoing. Some hyper dogs chill out. Some mellow dogs start bouncing off the walls.

This begs the question: if you can’t be sure of a dog’s true personality, how the hell do you pick the right one?

How do you tell the difference between a dog who is truly calm and easygoing, and a dog who has shut down because of the overwhelming environment?

There will always be some uncertainty with ANY dog – puppy or adult, purebred or mutt, from a fantastic breeder or a terrible Craigslist breeder. You never know what medical or behavior issues you will run into, or what a puppy’s personality will be like three years from now. Such is life. But there’s no denying that shelter dogs come with a lot of question marks.

Let’s talk about how to deal with that uncertainty and determine, as best as humanly possible, who any given shelter dog really is.


Your Shelter Search Strategy: Think Goodwill, Not Target.

In a webinar on dog adoption, trainer Trish King compares adopting a shelter dog to shopping at a thrift store: look hard enough, and you’ll find some great stuff. Be careful, though, because you’ll also find some… not so great stuff (not that a living being is “stuff”). I like this analogy. It’s the kind of mindset you need to be successful in this process.

Don’t expect to walk into the pound one day and walk out an hour later with the perfect dog. Be picky. Be skeptical. Don’t rush. Let this journey take as long as it takes.

“BUT, BUT, BUT!” Someone chimes in from the back of the room. “This sounds very clinical and coldhearted. I’m trying to SAVE A LIFE, not buy a trenchcoat. #adoptdontshop”

And that is AWESOME! The world needs more people like you. The best way to save a life? Make damn sure rescue dogs get matched with the right families. It does no one any good for a dog to go to the wrong home and then a) be miserable in that home for the rest of his life or b) get returned a month later as “damaged goods.”

Three Important First Steps

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1. Know what you want.

It’s hard to pick the right match when you don’t know what that match would look like. Check out How to Adopt the Perfect Shelter Dog, a free ebook that will help you figure out what kind of dog you should get. It’s not so important to decide on particular breeds as it is to decide on traits like energy level and sociability.

That ebook also provides the framework for how to visit an animal shelter. This post simply expands on that framework, so you should probably read the ebook first.

2. Learn how to read dog body language.

This is the single most effective way to find a great dog.

I worked as a shelter adoption counselor for several years. When I conducted meet-n-greets between dogs and prospective adopters, I would watch these dogs speak with their bodies, providing a wealth of information about who they were and how they were feeling. But the adopters often had no clue that the dogs were saying anything at all. Or worse: they thought the dogs were communicating something they actually were not. Oops.

Dog speak is incredibly subtle. Once you learn it, you’ll be amazed at the whole new world of canine communication that opens up to you. You’ll be able to tell the difference between a calm dog and a shut down dog.

This will take you some time, but it’s worth it. Seriously. You want my best advice on how to pick a good dog? This is it. You can stop reading this article now. Go watch some dog body language videos.

We now have a free online course all about canine body language and communication, which features footage of real live shelter dogs. Click here to check out Dog Speak 101.


3. Pick a good shelter.

There are different kinds of animal shelters: you’ve got yer privately owned, limited-intake facilities, and then you’ve got yer big open-intake county dog pounds.

Open-intake means they accept all dogs and cats, whether surrendered by their owners or picked up by animal control. Due to the sheer number of animals they handle, these facilities, while they may provide exceptional care, usually can’t get to know individual dogs well.

Limited-intake means they usually don’t accept dogs from the public. They pull animals from local open-intake pounds. Their ability to be picky and the fact that they have fewer animals in their care means they get to know each dog much better.

Your best bet might be a smaller, limited-intake organization. Their adoption fees will be higher, but you get what you pay for. This is a big generalization, though – some small shelters suck and some giant shelters are fantastic. You have to visit the facility and see for yourself.

Read the information cards on the kennels – do the dogs have names or just a number? Names are a good sign.

Talk to staff and volunteers. How often do the dogs get one-on-one playtime with people? Do any dogs receive training? How much can they tell you about individual dogs? Watch how staff interacts with their animals – you want to see compassion and a sense of humor, not irritation, impatience or rough handling. The gentler the staff, the more relaxed the dogs will be.

If possible, avoid visiting the shelter during big sales or on busy days.

Is your local shelter advertising a reduced-fee adoption promotion? Wonderful! Avoid it like the plague. Not that it’s bad that they’re having a sale, but they’ll be insanely busy. With more people visiting, the staff stretched thin, and the animals more stressed than usual, it’ll be hard to take the time you need to get to know the dogs.

For the same reason, weekdays are a better time to visit than weekends. I usually advise that you adopt a dog when you’ll have a few days off work to get her settled in. For most people, this is at the beginning of a weekend. But if you have the opportunity to do this during a time when everybody else is at work, take advantage of it.


10 Ways to Get to Know A Shelter Dog

1. Translate kennel card descriptions.


Most shelters are great at providing detailed descriptions of their dogs. But sometimes you have to read between the lines.

“A one-person dog.” “Would make a good guard dog.” “Takes a while to warm up to people.” This is a shy or potentially fear-aggressive dog.

“Still has that puppy energy!” “Boisterous.” “Energetic.” “Easily excited.” Translation: this dog is a hyperactive pain in the ass. Probably best for someone looking for a working/sports dog.

“Best for an owner who is home all day.” Tendency toward separation anxiety? Destructive if left unsupervised?

There is usually no intent to mislead on the part of the people writing these descriptions. They may be completely accurate, and they may be perfectly good dogs, but always dig deeper. Ask exactly what they mean by “a one person dog.” Ask exactly what behavior has been observed.


2. How drugged up is that doggie in the window?

A crucial question to ask the shelter staff: has this dog been spayed or neutered? How recently? If she was spayed that same day, she may still be recovering – and pumped full of medication. It will be impossible to determine her real temperament. If you fall in love with such a dog, come back the next day to interact with her again before you sign any contracts.


3. Watch how the dog behaves when walking through the shelter on leash.

He’ll probably pull on leash. That’s fine – it’s not really fair to expect perfect leash manners in this chaotic environment.

What you’re looking for is any sign of aggression or fear. If he lunges, barks, cowers, or growls at passing people or dogs, he probably has some reactivity issues. This is a major issue that will take a lot of rehabilitative work and have a big impact on your life.

I’ve dealt with reactivity in my own dogs. As much as I love my crazy boy Merlin, I have no desire to do it again any time soon. Personally, next time I go dog-hunting, I’m doing everything I can to make sure I don’t end up with another reactive dog.


4. Rile him up and then settle down.

Do this after you’ve followed the meet-n-greet protocol described in How to Adopt the Perfect Shelter Dog. Grab a toy, run around the play yard, talk in a squeaky voice. Whatever it takes to get the dog excited and willing to chase you. After a minute of high-intensity play, stop abruptly. Sit down and observe. How quickly can he switch gears? Will he happily sit down next to you, or does he keep jumping and trying to rough house?

If he can’t settle, if he gets stuck in “on” mode, this is a sign that he’s going to be a handful.


5. Ignore the dog.

After some petting, move away from the dog and completely stop interacting with her. What does she do? A good, stable family dog will follow you for a minute, then, when she realizes you’re not playing, mosey off to do her own thing.

Beware the dog who gets pushy or whiny and demands more attention. This might be cute, but there’s probably some separation issues in your future. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t get this dog, just be prepared to do a lot of work to prevent separation anxiety.


6. Look for a dog who likes your kids more than he likes you.

A few people recently asked me if there’s a way to tell if a dog is good with kids. The only way to really tell is to bring your kids with you. If you have children, or if you frequently have young visitors to your home (grandchildren, nieces/nephews, friends’ kids) do not adopt any dog without having them interact with the kids first.

The best family dogs will be thrilled to have the opportunity to play with children. In fact, the dog should rather play with the kids than you. Beware any dog who avoids or ignores the kids. Also beware any dog who just doesn’t interact with them enthusiastically. This might be his way of telling you he’s just not a kid person.


7. Use your new dog speak observation skills to judge the dog’s comfort level.

One of the big questions we’re trying to answer: is this dog relaxed enough to show her true personality? Or is she acting abnormally because she’s stressed?

Is she energetic… or is she frantic?

Is she mellow… or is she petrified into stillness?

This is why it’s so important to know how to read canine body language.

Throughout all your interactions with her, watch carefully for signs of stress. If she displays a lot of calming signals -yawning, lip licking, blinking, slowly turning away, etc- she’s uncomfortable. Once she gets into a home, there may be big changes in her behavior.

If you’re not seeing any stress signals, if all you see indicates a friendly, relaxed dog, congratulations! With this dog, what you see is probably what you’re gonna get.


8. Offer food.

One way to judge a dog’s stress level is to watch their reaction to food. Hand her a treat. Ideally, she’ll come over to sniff and then eat it. If she won’t take a delicious treat, she’s probably uncomfortable or anxious. A dog who frantically lunges for the food is probably also feeling some anxiety.

Drop some treats on the floor. Approach the dog as she eats, but don’t stick your hands near the food. If she stiffens up, freezes, covers the treat with her body, or walks away when you approach, beware.


9. Meet more than one dog.

Even if you think you’ve found The One on your first try, you should meet-n-greet with more than one dog. This will give you a better idea of how dogs behave in the shelter, what’s normal, what’s not, and what is a possible warning sign.


10. Identify the variables.

Some dogs will act completely different indoors than outdoors, or in a busy area of the shelter vs. a quiet one. Some dogs may be quiet in the mornings and crazy in the afternoon. Some dogs will behave differently with different people.

You want to know all of this.

If the shelter has more than one area for adopters to interact with the dogs -say, an indoor meet-n-greet room and an outdoor play yard- use them. Ask if you can take your candidate to a different area.

When you’re done with your meet-n-greet and the dog is put back in his kennel, spend some time observing from a distance. How does he interact with other people? Are there certain “types” he’s drawn to, and certain types that freak him out?

Once you meet a dog and decide you like him, try to come back in a few hours or even the next day to visit again before you adopt. If the shelter will allow you to put a dog on hold, do so. Because you don’t know what the dog was doing immediately before you interacted with him. He may have been woken from a nap and therefore been tired when meeting you, for example.

You want to see the dog during different moods, and minimize the chance you just caught him during a particularly good -or bad- one.


Extra credit: Hire a dog trainer to come with you to the shelter.

If it’s really important that you find the perfect match, this is something you should seriously consider. An experienced trainer will notice a lot of things that others can easily miss. Click here to learn how to find a good trainer.

Do you know what your dog is saying?

Understanding the subtle ways dogs communicate is a critical skill for dog owners. It can help with choosing the right dog, solving training problems, and building a strong bond.

This free video course from our online academy will give you a basic, yet detailed, introduction to the wonderful world of canine body language and communication.

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